Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in American women, according to the American Cancer Society. This year, 231,840 women and 2,350 men will learn they have breast cancer. Another 60,290 women will learn they have noninvasive (also called in situ) breast cancer. Breast cancer can often be cured. About 83 percent of all patients with breast cancer live at least 10 years after their diagnosis.
Radiation therapy following mastectomy reduces the risk of the tumor recurring and improves the probability of survival. Radiation therapy following removal of the cancer with a smaller margin (e.g., lumpectomy) is an important component of breast conservation therapy and also improves the probability of long-term survival.
However, as with any cancer treatment, these important benefits do come with some risks. Side effects of radiation therapy for breast cancer can be bothersome, but they also are treatable and temporary, typically going away shortly after radiation treatment ends. The process of breast radiation usually involves daily treatments for a few weeks, all under the care and attention of a radiation oncology team that includes doctors, therapists and nurses trained to help our patients not only with their cancer, but also with the side effects that may come from treating it.
Multiple factors, such as the stage and location of the cancer, can influence the severity of each individual’s reaction to treatment. Skin reactions during radiation therapy are common, but they usually are not as severe as those shown in pictures currently circulating via some news and media outlets. The vast majority of patients have much milder skin reactions, and when an adverse reaction does occur, it is almost always transient.
Radiation oncology teams are trained to help resolve a patient’s discomfort and anxiety associated with negative reactions to treatment. In the long term, the majority of patients who receive radiation therapy for breast cancer are pleased with their overall result.